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September 13, 2005
India's tour of Zimbabwe has been a struggle so far, and it didn't get any easier for them on the first day of the Test series. A flat pitch, bright sunny conditions, a quick outfield all played a hand, but perhaps more than anything else it was the attitude of the Zimbabwe batsmen which ensured that they ended the day on fairly equal terms.
After being humiliated in the first Test of their previous series against New Zealand, Zimbabwe have made a much better fist of it in the next two games, scoring 231 and 207 at the same ground against New Zealand, and then passing 250 today. These would be modest landmarks for most other teams, but for a side fraught with so many off-the-field issues, this was no mean achievement.
In the past, Zimbabwe's problems have started right at the top of their order - in the ten Tests they've played since January 2004, six batsmen have opened the batting, without a lot of success: their average opening stand during that period has been 15.79. The only opener to have scored a fifty against a team other than Bangladesh during this period has been Brendan Taylor, and, in what could be the most significant gain for Zimbabwe from today's play, they might have finally found a solution for part of that problem.
Terry Duffin's credentials as a first-class player are modest - one century in 30 first-class matches, and an average just touching 30 - but today he made the graduation to Test cricket with surprising ease. His physical dimensions bear a remarkable similarity to Mark Richardson, but more reassuringly for Zimbabwe, so does his batting style.
In an age of slam-bang openers - Chris Gayle, Virender Sehwag and Herschelle Gibbs being the shining examples - the dour run-accumulator is a rarity. New Zealand lost theirs recently, but Zimbabwe might have just found one answer to their batting woes. Duffin started a touch iffily, playing and missing a few, but once he got over those initial nerves, he was rarely troubled by pace or spin.
There are many aspects to recommend in his batting style - economy of movement at the crease, ability to play close to the body with soft hands, knowing his strengths and playing within them. Like Richardson - who once famously said he only had three strokes in his armoury - Duffin played the cover-drive and the sweep more than any other shot, and got rich rewards from them. His eventual dismissal was the result of a touch of overconfidence, but by then he had made his mark, becoming only the fifth Zimbabwean - after Dave Houghton, the Flower brothers, and Stuart Matsikenyeri - to pass 50 in his first Test innings. And when Duffin fell, Zimbabwe had the reassuring presence of Tatenda Taibu to make sure that their day ended on a high.
India's effort with the ball and in the field was another example of how this team struggles when the conditions aren't bowler-friendly. Zaheer Khan bowled a fiery spell late in the day with an old ball which reverse swung, but both he and Irfan Pathan struggled to make an impression first up. Both the left-armers have dropped their pace considerably, and while Pathan found swing, it was far too predictable even to trouble batsmen who have in the past struggled against left-arm swing bowling.
Among the two spinners on view, there was little doubt about who finished on top. Anil Kumble bounded in from start to finish on a first-day track, got his legbreak to turn a fair bit, and richly deserved both his wickets. Harbhajan Singh, on the other hand, made little impression despite getting appreciable turn. The 200th wicket might have been playing on his mind, but Harbhajan did little to ensure he got there quickly: the over-the-wicket line wasn't working and he was loathe to change his line of attack - only 12 out of 156 balls were delivered from round the wicket. When things are going well, top-class bowlers draw on their ability to experiment; Harbhajan has a long way to go on that front, at least.
India's fielding wasn't spot-on either - Dinesh Karthik and Rahul Dravid fumbled a couple of chances, but the shocker came from the captain early on, when he made little effort to cut off an on-drive from Hamilton Masakadza which only went a few yards to his left. Perhaps Duffin will invite him for a race in body suits at the end of the series.
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